The Way of Peace

Peace is neither merely the absence of conflict nor simply tolerating each other. Peace in Holy Scripture is cooperative fellowship, a harmonious way of living with God and one another based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Peace is simultaneously a virtue we already possess and an ideal we need to obtain and live into.

In writing to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul strung together several verbs to make it clear how to achieve peace on the practical level. Six of the verbs are in the imperative form, that is, they are commands.  Paul gave these imperatives to the Church because they were in danger of a breakdown in their fellowship. Embedded within Paul’s message is a deep Christian spirituality based in knowing Christ, with an overall message and imperative to keep persevering and not give up on peace or on one another.

  • Stand firm in the Lord. (Philippians 4:1) 

Standing firm in faith is a function of knowing Jesus Christ – an experiential knowledge beyond mere mental acknowledgement (Philippians 3:7-10). Our feet are to be firmly planted and rooted in the soil of Jesus Christ as our highest value and our surpassing greatness over and above anyone or anything else. 

This first command is a bedrock imperative. We cannot really move to the other five imperatives until we ensure our foundation is solid. In other words, there will be no peace in our personal lives or in our corporate life together unless we embrace Jesus as our most precious relationship.

If our god is our stomach and we do not take charge and own our Christian walk through spiritual practices that connect us with Jesus, then peace will be elusive. We must patiently, deliberately, and slowly plod along with Jesus and follow him as our highest priority in every sphere of our lives.

  • Help resolve disagreements. (Philippians 4:2-3) 

Euodia and Syntyche were two prominent women leaders in the Philippian Church. Whatever their differences were, Paul made it clear to them that they must agree and be like-minded concerning the issue. 

This second imperative goes beyond telling two persons to work out their differences; the church was called upon to help do the work of peacemaking. Because peace characterizes the triune God, and Jesus Christ came to achieve peace on our behalf, God’s people are to be peacemakers.

Many differences are resolved with far fewer disagreements when we abide in Christ. If folks immerse themselves in Scripture and in knowing Christ, instead of taking the stance of being right despite any evidence to the contrary, then a lot less peacemaking would even need to take place.

New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has said, “Personal differences should never become an occasion for advancing your party, for stroking bruised egos, for resorting to cheap triumphalism, for trimming the gospel by appealing to pragmatics.  Focus on what unites you: the gospel. Be like-minded; think the same things; agree with one another. Work hard and humbly on these central issues, and in most instances the peripheral matters will take care of themselves. Resolve to pursue like-mindedness with other believers. This will ennoble and strengthen all sides, so that you will never abandon the Christian walk.”

  • Let your gentleness be evident to all. (Philippians 4:4-5) 

The Christian is to have a basic disposition of humility and meekness. There is to be gracious forbearance with others that is publicly observable. Rejoicing in the Lord need not be a command when we are truly pursuing the experiential knowledge of Christ (because joy then just spills out of us). Gentleness is the fruit of a meek and humble spirit, a direct result of knowing the gentle Savior.

A solid building block of conflict intervention and resolution is a humble and gentle spirit – which goes beyond personal holiness. It is being close enough to rub shoulders with others so that the gentleness can be experienced by another. This will sometimes require getting graciously involved in the interpersonal affairs of others. 

Getting involved does not mean dipping into other people’s business with unsolicited advice, angry diatribes, nor taking sides. It means, rather, extending basic human kindness in all affairs of group life, being part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.

  • Do not be anxious about anything. (Philippians 4:6a)

Where disharmony exists, anxiety is not far behind. Worry about the future only obfuscates a way forward. Sometimes anxiety is rooted in our theology. If we fundamentally view God as a stern Being whose chief activity is dispensing disapproval and wrath, then we will likely live with an underlying sense of anxiety and fear of upsetting such a God. Performance-based living comes from trying to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps to placate a hard-to-please God who is always looking over our shoulder to make sure we do not mess up.

On the other hand, if our theology has God as a loving Being who is pained by the damage sin does to the souls of people, then we become open to the gracious mending of broken spirits. In the Christian tradition, the death of Christ is the ultimate act of love in handling the sin issue once for all. God in Christ did for us what we could do for ourselves.

Chronic spiritual anxiety usually arises from the inability to perceive a generous and hospitable God having our backs and working on our behalf. Knowing God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, leads to peace and rest.  This logically leads to the fifth imperative….

  • Present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6b-7) 

Prayer naturally arises from a heart that knows God is listening. Prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings are all congruent actions stemming from an experiential knowledge of God’s grace.

Having the peace of God which transcends all understanding is a beautiful thing. If our theological view is of God playing games with us, holding out a carrot stick we can never quite reach, then peace will be elusive. Conversely, if we have confidence to present our requests to God and have the discipline to slow down long enough to do it, this inevitably leads to peace.

We are to pray about everything, in all circumstances with all kinds of prayers. Spontaneous prayers, written prayers, heartfelt prayers, silent prayers, and loud prayers are all encouraged. We are to pray without ceasing, praying for everyone – for rulers and all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Pray, then pray some more. If we struggle to pray, perhaps we struggle with our view of God.

  • Put it into practice (Philippians 4:8-9) 

Armed with a vigorous theology, the task of spiritual formation is unlearning harmful theological approaches and discovering new and helpful ways of the Divine. This requires some basic spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer (both individually and communally), and practices of silence and solitude which put us in a position to connect with God and self.

Conclusion

Healthy spiritual rhythms help us know God and God’s peace. To put the six imperatives into practice, a plan is needed which translates good intentions into good habits. We need a rule of life. God may be opposed to earning salvation but is not opposed to sanctified effort – and effort is necessary for effective spiritual practices.

Do you have a method for being a peacemaker? Are you developing ways for making gentleness evident? Is there a plan in place for avoiding anxiety? What is your agenda for structuring consistent prayer?

Experiencing peace does not spontaneously materialize. Peace occurs through tapping into the spiritual resources we have in Jesus Christ. Realizing practical peace is rolling up our spiritual sleeves and working on the biblical imperatives Paul provided for us. It is everyone’s job, and not only the job of a few. 

May you know the peace of Christ this day.

May you experience God as your refuge and strength.

May God hasten the day when wars shall cease, and poverty and pain shall end so that the earth may know and experience the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

On Knowing Christ

Pietà by Elisabeth Frink

The ancient Philippian church had lost sight of their purpose, of what is the primary reason for their being in existence. Simply put, they needed to unify around what is the central and most valuable core of Christianity: knowing Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, Jesus was so valuable that he literally gave up everything to become a Christian and follow Jesus. (Philippians 3:4-14)

It was no little thing that Paul did, converting in such a completely life-altering way to Christ. Paul had everything going for him. He was the up and coming star in Judaism. Paul had the Jewish pedigree, the intelligence, the personality, and the drive to become one of the greatest Pharisees of all time. And yet he forsook it all to pursue and know Christ. 

It might be hard for us to imagine just how significant Paul’s turn around was. On a much smaller scale, it would be like Green Bay Packer quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, at the height of his career, leaving football altogether to become a missionary to some remote place few people have ever heard of. Most might likely think he lost his marbles and was throwing away (pun intended) something valuable and important. So, it was with Paul.  Everyone thought he was nuts for becoming a Christian.

However, this would be to misunderstand what is really of greatest value. There are plenty of people in our society telling us what we need. With all the noisy rhetoric, from political pundits to commercial marketers, the person and work of Jesus can easily get lost in an ocean of competing voices. On a practical level, it can be far too easy to simply toss Christian discipleship on the smorgasbord of good ideas we get handed each day. Jesus might get misplaced and forgotten on our plate of life because of the mass of other food that is piled alongside him.

World Communion Sunday (always the first Sunday in October each year) reminds Christians that Jesus is our surpassing greatness, the highest and most worthy asset we possess. When we come to the Lord’s Table, there is nothing else to feast upon except Jesus, and Jesus alone. In the act of receiving the common elements of bread and cup, we proclaim that we need no one else and no other thing to make us happy in this life. Jesus is enough for us. What is more, we stand united with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world in a common purpose and value of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The Elements of Holy Communion by Jacques Iselin

The core value and heart of Christianity is a faith and love relationship with Jesus, to know him. This was the heartfelt cry of the Apostle Paul, and it was so meaningful to him that he gave up everything to pursue Christ and follow Jesus.  If we ever strip Christianity of this core value and stray from knowing Christ, the vacuum will be quickly filled with all kinds of other stuff, like the sheer duty of perfunctory prayers, clean living, and dispassionate robotic service. 

Paul longed to know Christ better. There are two words in the Greek language for “know.” One word refers to information; the other refers to an experiential knowledge – and that is the word Paul used with the Philippians. He deeply desired an intimate experience of Jesus. And Paul craved this so much that literally everything, when compared to Jesus, was “rubbish” to him. 

In the ancient world there were no landfills and dumps – the street served as the place people threw their garbage. The trash then got trampled into the ground, along with the generous amounts of animal dung. That is how Paul thought of even the best things in life as compared to knowing Jesus. 

There is no comparison between a freshly grilled T-bone steak and microwaved liverwurst. There is no comparison between a billion dollars and a penny. There is no comparison between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears (sorry Chi-Town). And there is no comparison between Jesus and anyone or anything else, no matter whom or what it is. 

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the fifth century, described life apart from Jesus as “disordered love.” By that he meant we pursue whatever our affections are set upon. One might love family, friends, job, and hobbies, yet if Jesus is absent or must compete for our affections in the middle of those things, then it is a disordered love. The solution, for Augustine, is to rightly order our love by having Jesus as the premier object of our affection. The New Testament frames it this way: Repent and believe the gospel.

To have “disordered love” is a nicer way of saying “spiritual adultery.” Using this metaphor, the appropriate response is to return to our first love. “You have forsaken your first love,” said Jesus to the church in Ephesus.  “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5). 

Christianity is not some religion in which we strike a deal with God to go to heaven if we accept Jesus. Rather, Christianity centers all of life in the person and work of Jesus. The Lord is a jealous God, feeling slighted when Christians moonlight with the world at night while acknowledging Jesus during the day.

Specifically, Paul wanted to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. He yearned to experience a supernatural change from the inside-out – to be a new person in Christ. Paul did not simply turn over a new leaf; he did a dramatic 180 degree turn and went hard after Jesus. A desire and/or decision to know Christ is to be more than a milquetoast “I’ll try to do better.” Christianity, at its core, is dying to self and being reborn in Jesus with new life.

Furthermore, Paul wanted to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Paul ached to know Jesus so much that he embraced suffering, just as his Lord did. Paul was not some spiritual masochist; he rightly recognized that spiritual growth and intimacy with Jesus largely comes from the harsh realities of life’s trials and difficulties, as faith is stretched.  We would not know Christ the healer if we were not broken; Christ the provider if we were not in want; and, Jesus Christ and him crucified unless we were aware of sin in the world along with our own personal sin.

Each time a Christian approaches the Lord’s Table, they set aside competing voices and forsake rival gods to have Jesus. For us who believe, let the ingesting of the elements be an act of fellowship with God. May we, along with Paul, Augustine, and all past saints desire to have Jesus completely take over our lives because he is so valuable to us. We never need to be perfect to partake of bread and cup. Instead, we only need to strive toward what is ahead and decide that today we will press on toward the higher goal of knowing Christ.

Philippians 1:3-14 – Unity Through Shared Purpose

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare even more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (NIV)

Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. In the same way, spiritual health and care for the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there are divided loyalties, unhappiness, and disunity. And this is precisely what happened in the ancient Philippian Church. They were spiritually sick and relationally fragmented through inattention to one another.

Unity is much more than the absence of division. It is a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others. In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others.

Every pronoun, each “you” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing or avoid tattoos.

The Apostle Paul knew that without a focus on mission, on sharing the good news with each other and proclaiming the gospel to others, that the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people just nit-pick one another to death with all their various opinions and wants.

Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find constant complaining, endless arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the good news of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes we just need to recall past days when this was true of us when we are facing animosity and acrimony.

In times of frustration, anger, demonstrations, riots, violence (both physical and verbal) and injustice, we desperately need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another.

When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the risen and ascended Lord strengthen our efforts to mend the ruptures of the past and to meet the challenges of the present with hope in the future. May we embrace the grace which a sovereign God holds out to us and to our world. Amen.

Pass It On

I am the youngest of five children, and because of that reality I had to follow my siblings in school with many of the same teachers they had. I heard these statements more than once: “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” (the studious valedictorian) and “Why aren’t you like your brother?” (the nice quiet one).  I sometimes had this icky feeling in school that I somehow fell short because I wasn’t like them. 

The task of the Christian is to imitate Christ – not impersonate Jesus by being someone we are not. God created each of us uniquely and has sovereignly gathered us together as the church. So, we need to strive to be the best individual person possible in imitating Jesus by means of who we are, learning to work together, appreciating one another as we seek to follow Christ. 

The Apostle Paul wrote the New Testament letter to the Philippian Church because the fellowship had broken down into some rancorous in-fighting. This left the believers disillusioned. So, Paul passed on four imitations of Christ (not impersonations) to help them (and us) experience the unity God desires for his people.  

1. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right values (Philippians 2:1-2).   

Shared values, not smooth sailing, keeps a group of people together. Paul appealed to lived experience. If anyone has experienced encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, or compassion, then we need to recognize it, remember it, and then pass it on to others. Those values happened because God granted blessings to us through other people. In other words, we owe to others what God has done through others for us.   

These common valued experiences occur as we participate in the life of our triune God. They come from the perfect relational dynamic that endlessly occurs within God himself as Father, Son, and Spirt. As we spend time with God and are filled with the divine life, these relational values spill-over in our human interactions.   

Passing on encouragement and compassion is not a function of willpower in trying to impersonate Jesus; it is a matter of spending time with God – because people tend to imitate those they hang around. If we spend time with people who typically complain, we will end up constantly cranky. If we hang out with people who continually pray, we will find ourselves reflexively praying about everything. If we are around chronically negative people, we will become constantly unhappy. If we make it a regular practice to hang out with Jesus, we discover that we are imitating him in our relationships through encouragement, love, comfort, and compassion. 

The word “joy” pops up a lot in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, yet it is never an exhortation to be joyful but rather an exhortation to unity. The by-product of unity is joy. Joy and happiness are the direct result of unity, and unity comes from embracing the shared common values Paul expressed. 

2. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right service (Philippians 2:3-4).   

Humility is the remedy for dissension and disunity. Strife comes from stubbornly guarding our own opinions. Humility, however, considers others better than oneself. We are to do nothing out of selfishness or vain conceit. Instead, we are to imitate Jesus – to take up our crosses and follow him through dying to things which create disunity. Trying to impersonate Jesus results in lording over people and circumstances. It leads to division. However, imitating Jesus results in being like him in his humility and gentleness. It brings unity and peace.   

Nik Wallenda is a Christian and a high wire artist. In 2012 he walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls; and, in 2013 he became the first person to high wire walk across the Grand Canyon. Nearly a combined billion people saw those two incredible feats. After every tight rope walk for the crowds, Nik Wallenda engages in a simple spiritual discipline: he walks where the throngs of people just stood and watched him, and quietly picks up their trash.  

Wallenda says about this practice, “My purpose is simply to help clean up after myself. The huge crowd left a great deal of trash behind, and I feel compelled to pitch in. Besides, after the inordinate amount of attention I sought and received, I need to keep myself grounded. Three hours of cleaning up debris is good for my soul. Humility does not come naturally to me. So, if I must force myself into situations that are humbling, so be it …. I know that I need to get down on my hands and knees like everyone else. I do it because it is a way to keep from tripping. As a follower of Jesus, I see him washing the feet of others. I do it because if I don’t serve others, I’ll be serving nothing but my ego.” 

3. We are to imitate Christ by passing on the right attitude (Philippians 2:5-11).   

The Apostle Paul bluntly stated that our attitude is to be the same as Jesus: laying down life for the benefit of others. Impersonating Jesus leads to a martyr complex that wants others see our good works. However, imitating Christ’s attitude is to serve without being concerned who sees it or who gets the credit. It is an attitude of passing on what we have received from God. 

In the way of Jesus, the way up is down; the way to gain is by giving; the way to life is through death; the way to praise God is humble service for others. When my grandson was in one of his many hospital stays in the epilepsy ward, I watched him (3 years old at the time and without any prompting) make his way from room to room encouraging other patients and serving them. In the room where a ten year old girl had just had brain surgery with no hair and unattractive bandages, I overheard him say, “Oh, I like your new hat; it looks great on you!”  Making his way to the next room of a twelve-year-old boy who was near death, he said, “Would you like a drink?  I can get a drink for you!”   

I saw parents in the epilepsy ward who were as different from one another as you could imagine. Yet, we all shared a common purpose which gave us a common attitude. We all wanted these kids to be seizure free, and we were doing whatever it took to help each other realize that dream. 

Jesus humbled himself and became a man, being obedient to death on a cross, because his purpose was for humanity to be sin-free. Christ did whatever it took to make that happen.  If a small little boy can be used of God, then how much can you and I adopt the attitude of Jesus and do whatever it takes to see that people realize freedom in Jesus Christ!? 

4. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right commitments (Philippians 2:12-13).   

The Christian life is meant to be lived together with other believers. We can try to impersonate Jesus, which will result in trying to impress the wrong crowd. However, when we imitate Christ, we commit ourselves to the people God has placed in our lives. Just as it was not our choice which family we were born into, so it is not our choice which spiritual family we are born again into. The church is not a voluntary society, any more than a family is. The church belongs to Jesus and we are neither to just fluidly move in and out of it as if it were a hobby that we toy with once-in-a-while, nor treat it as a spectator sport just watching what happens and playing arm-chair quarterback on Monday morning. 

Paul exhorted the believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. That means we are to live-out our collective salvation together in being mindful of each other. In other words, unity takes a lot of work – work which requires imitating Christ through a shared commitment to one another. 

The promise we have is that when we do this kind of good work that it is God who acts to bend everything to his good purposes. This is a wonderful promise, one we need to take to heart with a good dose of godly reverence and awe. 

Conclusion 

My oldest sister was the valedictorian of her class. I did not follow in her steps. My brother was the kind of kid that teachers envied to have in their classes. I think my teachers wondered if we were from the same family. My other sister was friends with all her teachers, and they all enjoyed her. I just remember getting a lot of sighs and eye-rolling from my teachers. I often struggled with my identity as a kid.   

I found my identity in Christ. I discovered I did not have to be like anyone else. God used me for who I am right where I was, learning to imitate Jesus. We need not be worried or discouraged about how far short we fall in comparison to others. Instead, we are to be concerned about how God wants to fulfill all his good promises in Christ through us – because at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God.  We are to pass on to others every good thing we have in Jesus Christ.